On countless occasions I have been awe-struck by the insights my pre-pubescent children have deduced on their own. One afternoon, as we drove to a local nature reserve tucked in among a city suburb, my son Owen observed of the scattered mansions dotting the road we traveled “Why do people need such big houses? It’s such a waste of natural habitat.”
I had never coached him in the environmentalist’s creed, largely because I am a fossil-fuel consuming pig like any other North American. We were driving in my compact SUV to the nature reserve, after all. The observation was his alone, which made me proud of him and ashamed myself at the same time. I’ve since been bracing myself for him to say, “Yo dad, what’s up with the SUV anyway?” My comeback is already locked and loaded, “to carry all the stuff we need to go camping as a family, because that’s how happy memories are created.”
For a time, Owen had a fascination with supernovas. He was awed by the idea such energies exist in the universe; the truth immense phenomena completely beyond the will of humanity to influence. For weeks he would ask me about the prospects of a supernova jeopardizing earth’s existence. I said “nah,” without having a clue. He consulted more authoritative sources on the subject, and learned there is geological evidence gamma rays from supernovas did in fact reach the earth. The effect on the ozone layer of these phenomena is theorized to have caused massive extinctions of oceanic life. Irrespective of the risks they may or may not pose to earth in the future, supernovas definitely extinguished my son’s faith in his learned father as a source of edification.
These are just a couple of examples that scream to me in the starkest terms possible that my child is no longer child-like. He isn’t just letting things pass him by, but is reflecting deeply about things in his experience. It’s a harrowing prospect if he’s anywhere near as skeptical, self-critical, and emotionally mistrusting as I was at his age. Innocently, out of the blue the other day, he said “I notice I don’t laugh as hard at certain funny things like I used to when I was a kid. Why is that?”
My first impulse was to say, ‘It isn’t. You’re wrong. Just keep laughing kid and forget you ever asked the question.’ The truth is, the question made me want to curl up and die a little. It is disheartening to realize he’s lost some of his childhood bliss, no matter how much I knew that day would inevitably come.
It was also amusing to hear my son imply he is no longer just a kid. It suggests he is beginning to formulate a self-concept; one I hope will help to guide him responsibly, conscientiously in the world. In the end, I simply said, “Maybe you’re applying a little more opinion than feeling to certain things as you grow older. What do you think?” His eyes said, ‘maybe.’
Owen just turned thirteen. Sometimes he wanders into the living room without me noticing, curious about the not kid-friendly movie he overheard from his bedroom. I continue to forget – or am still in denial – about the fact my kids aren’t nine; that, at ten o’clock they probably aren’t fast asleep dreaming of dancing in lollipop fields. Invariably, a scene with nudity or violence propels him to reveal his presence “I guess I shouldn’t be watching this, hey Dad?” Neither should I, son, neither should I. Ninety-nine per cent of it is nuclear waste for the mind.
After a few instances of this, it strikes me he is genuinely interested in these movies, for reasons I cannot fully apprehend. It’s not just the sensation of flesh and gore that piques his imagination, it’s the existence of social dynamics so utterly foreign to him; I can see from his eyes he is intrigued, as I would be if I had seen something unprecedented in my life.
He’s curious; the situations are so much more emotionally nuanced, the characters not so one-dimensional in their psychological métier, unlike the cardboard cut-out characters he’s been exposed to in kids’ movies. There are no caricatures of good guys and bad guys; there are good people doing bad things and vice versa. There is no easy fix, no simple aims to accomplish. The world is not flat, and its problems are bigger than who will become king or defeat the bad guy.
I can see his mind swirling with questions about what he sees in the movies I’m watching, or what he sees and hears on the news of the world. People are dying all over the place. Bombs are going off with intent to kill and maim. There is rampant, abject poverty and crass wealth. We humans are degrading the planet more and more every year. Things aren’t always joyous and happy in the world, at least not for most of us. These create conflicts in a young mind cradled in simple, easy-to-digest fictions, one writhing in a body teeming with hormones and bursting out of clothes he fit last fall. It’s all a bit unsettling.
It pains me my son is no longer laughing with the same uninhibited abandon he once did, and I wonder if there’s a sadness or trepidation at the broader realities he is learning about the world that is to blame. I will never forget the sheer force of that laugh several years ago; a laugh which energized a theatre of movie-goers as we watched Kung Fu Panda. By the end of the movie the entire audience was basking in the glow of Owen’s undaunted joy as he watched the movie – in addition to the movie itself. His amusement was infectious and intensified others’ delight in the experience.
Since then, I assume it’s been an increasing sense of ‘been there, done that.’ Things may be funny, but they’re not that funny. As we watch movie after movie specifically made for kids his age, he betrays a growing weariness about the lack of imagination, depth, and substance in the characters and situations that typify these stories. I wonder if he detects how little they challenge convention. He has been saying repeatedly for about a year now, ‘filled with clichés,’ which suggests he does. He prefers to watch the wide selection of nature documentaries available on Netflix, which suits me fine.
It’s clear my son is filtering his experiences through an emerging, more sophisticated sense of judgement. For most teenagers there are two crude dimensions of this faculty: “Suck” and “Does not suck.” In my son’s case, I worry he will inherit a yardstick with the taint of my own skeptical, idealist bent; one that is quick to detect, denounce, and despair of the cruelty, duplicity, and corruption that defile humanity. Thus far, he’s only gone so far as casting aspersions at the preponderance of clichés we seem to live by, but it’s a slippery slope.
I’ve tried to raise my son without over-indulging him with my opinions about everything under the sun to spare him the perils of my own cynicism. I was raised that way by well-meaning, ideologically zealous family members, who didn’t seem to realize they were imposing an outlook; one that took considerable concerted effort over several years to shake, not because it was right or wrong, necessarily, but because it was not of my own making. It felt like there was a being inside me who was desperate to unlock the blinders put upon me as a child and see things for myself.
Despite my struggle to exercise ideological forbearance in his life, my son sees certain things critically in his own right. I am relieved; he’s already destined not to be a cultural dupe. He already is beginning to have his own mind about why he’s unconvinced, a doubt that is more rooted in inquisitiveness than stridency acquired from me. I am proud he is thinking for himself and proud I have not smited him with my own blinders.
Owen is intellectually curious and takes the time to follow up the big questions in a conscientious way. It’s encouraging to see him chasing after his own informed view of things. I respect his brains and ideas about the world he sees, and am relieved he isn’t applying the “Sucks/Does not suck” dichotomy to that world. That will be his salvation from the neurosis that began to imprison me at his age.
Most of all, I am relieved he expends the energy to understand his world without relying on others to do it for him. The habit of looking outward for all our ideas about experience turns a potentially infinite mind into an intellectually lazy, ignorant, dull mind; one that merely parrots whatever has been served up for mass consumption. Most “common sense” is trite nonsense. I wretch with disdain for politicians or public figures who invoke it as though it was akin to a rhetorical bird in the hand.
The preponderance of social media is a handy tool to render lies and falsehoods convincing thanks to the ease by which they enforce a conformist, un-critical collective consciousness. It is much too easy for propagandists to employ social media as the organ to extol manufactured ideals that serve the narrowest, most specious interests of those who wield the most power in a society. These ideas are compelling not because they are morally, ethically, or factually robust, but because they appeal to emotions that have been willfully inflamed to diminish judgement. Stirring the tripwires of our primitive impulses compels our adherence to fraudulent ideals because they are incessantly re-iterated and, by that token, appear reasonable and legitimate to our emotionally-inflamed minds. This explains how educated, accomplished, and otherwise highly intelligent people can be such ardent racists and bigots.
I am heartened my son already shows the hallmarks of a mind capable of seeing through the demagoguery; one that is self-reflective and curious. It means he will actively seek out sources of truth beyond the mainstream bellwethers that are so often employed to enforce, or reinforce, deplorable cultural norms. I see this in a lot of the kids his age, and it makes me smile.
The reflexive revulsion to instances of crassness and stupidity among today’s youth explains why the single-minded, destructive borg of the Baby Boomer generation – who grew up on three channels that shrunk their brains into the narrowest, most ignorant, chauvinist view of the world – cannot stand them. It is why my son and everyone else under thirty is a “snowflake” according to the sophists over the age of sixty on my social media feeds. The crime: the uppity young’uns are audacious enough to hold the mirror up to the intellectual paucity, the hollow bromides, self-serving ideologies, toxic behaviours, and fictions that sustained a world view that squandered our collective wealth, poisoned our civil societies with divisive ideologies, and degraded our planet. Thank goodness for the immutability of biology; the ethos of selfishness, greed, and “individuality” will eventually run its course as the last of the power- and money-hoarding cadre of this generation hits the celestial exits.
What will go with them is the idea that it is normal and desirable to be ill-informed, emotionally toxic, abusive, corrupt, cruel, malevolent, and hypocritical “for the right reasons,” which is whatever can be defended in your own mind, without facts, knowledge, experience, or anything to substantiate it (though ninety-nine per cent of the time the “reason” is money). The death of that generation’s self-serving, narcissistic, utter nonsense from our societies’ consciousness will be the only funeral in my life I will gladly attend. Words cannot describe how relieved I am my son will be spared the gauntlet of living his entire adult life swathed in the corrosive shawl of such a derelict culture like I and others in my generation.
The day after my son asked me that question I was sitting in my living room when David Bowie’s song “Ashes to Ashes” came on the radio. I remember vividly when I first heard it in the summer of 1981. My best friend’s older brother, who had exquisite taste in music, filled their home with the elegiac yearning of that song. I was instantly overwhelmed with wonder in the experience; that something so simple as a song could be so strange and wonderful at the same time; that it could instill in my soul something meaningful and true, even if it was inarticulable to my childhood intellect.
I fought back tears as the song ended. It reaffirmed my adoration for Bowie, who so transcendently encapsulates the indescribable repercussions of loss; lost childhood, lost youth. The song is a wistful rejoinder about how our spirit smoulders under the emotional weight of adult lives too often tilled from the ashes of forsaken youth. The drugs and excess of so many successful people are a failed attempt to prop up perpetually wilting egos heavy from the artifice. It seems to me the better solution would be to exhume the child buried beneath the ashes. The notion gave me pause; I think of children my son’s age crafting their identities, one judgement at a time, stoking the flames that engulf their true essence to fit the cultural mold of adulthood.
What dies in the process is the sense of wonder to keep the spirit yearning for more of the simple graces life has to offer – that fuels curiosity and stirs efforts to see it fulfilled in authentic ways. The richness of life can’t be experienced fully by those entangled in the spiritless life of most adults. It is essential to leave the confines of that existence to cultivate a connection to the feeling in our bodies telling us what the world reveals in our experience, and to trust the wisdom arising from that.
Uncontrollable laughter is as all-consuming within our bodies as crippling sadness. The truth in those experiences is undeniable, despite the qualification our minds impart to temper our bruised psyches. I want to say to my son ‘If something is truly unfunny, don’t laugh; if it is, do so fully. Let go to how it feels in your heart, not your mind.’ Trust is maintained in that purity of feeling by holding up the mirror to ourselves often, with spiritual intention, to ensure what is reflected remains the person we knew intimately as children; that the view isn’t dulled by the ashes and dust of abandonment to adulthood.